Ahead of the 85th running of the Le Mans 24-hour race, we caught up with Tom Kristensen, the man who won this event a record nine times.
The state of things in the WEC ahead of Le Mans 2017
Alexandru Șiclovan: Let’s start with the current form of this year’s Le Mans protagonists. How would you rate the two low-drag packages based on what you saw in Silverstone/Spa?
Tom Kristensen: Very close, too close to tell at the moment. Toyota won both races but it was closer than you can expect. As you saw, the low-drag package of Toyota was not first or second, but I think they are very much looking eye-to-eye. Porsche winning last two years, Toyota was very, very close to win last year, probably so close that we were even talking about how they would celebrate the victory when the shock turned up, three minutes until the end. There are a lot of motorsport fans around the world that would love to see that Toyota can finally win the 24 hours of Le Mans. That bodes for excitement, in itself.
In general, look at the whole grid: LMP2 has so many cars, it’s the biggest class in this year’s race, it has many good and young drivers. It’s too close to tell a winner. In the GTE-Pro class, the cars now have the BoP optimized after the first two races. Not only Ferrari wants to beat Ford, but also the Corvettes, the Porsches and Aston-Martins will join that hunt.
AS: Do you feel that Toyota are all in this year, is there a real reason to believe they will quit the series if things don’t go well at Le Mans?
TK: My feeling would be the opposite. I think the whole Toyota team are real racing people. They couldn’t find a better championship than the one they are in. Going back, Audi has been here for 18 years, Toyota hasn’t been for so long and they look for revenge. They haven’t won Le Mans yet. They were there in the 90s, Porsche of course have been there in the 70s, 80s, 90s and they are back again. Certainly Toyota is focussed and they are digging deep this year by deciding to go for the first time with three cars – another iron into the fire. That is going to be interesting. Running three cars is more complex, but it also brings more information in a shorter time. There is more pressure to take the right decisions in an instant.
AS: Given how cars reacted to the temperature variation in Spa, do you feel that Porsche might have the upper hand during the night at Le Mans?
TK: You couldn’t really see. We had the aero configuration that car #9 ran, Toyota’s Le Mans aero, and the Porsche running already in their Le Mans configuration. The widest variations of temperature so far suited Toyota, but that came also from running a bit more aero. Traditionally, Toyota has more mechanical driveability. That is the way they tend to go, whereas other manufacturers, including Porsche, are a bit more on the outright, perfect scenario, trying to create a car in a smaller, more narrow window, and to extract more.
To cut it short, I think the Toyota is more forgiving on a wider temperature range, while Porsche might be the fastest car when it’s in that narrow window.
AS: Coming to the drivers, who would you label as a “night specialist”, who would make a difference in your opinion?
TK: There are a lot of strong drivers, turning into sportscar specialists over the years. It’s very difficult to predict, but of course you would not expect anything less than supreme from Neel Jani and Lotterer. But you also had Nick Tandy winning in that car on his P1 debut with Bamber and Hulkenberg. He was particularly strong during the night. That car looks very strong. You have Brendon Hartley who has gone very strongly in the last year, with Earl Bamber, as I mentioned, and a proven hand in Timo Bernhard, who is now a sort of team leader in that car. These two cars are incredibly strong.
The Toyota is similar. Buemi, Davidson and Nakajima are together for their third year. Kobayashi came in and was very fast last year at night. Given the mistake he made early in the morning, he would like to do better this year. We’ve seen Sarrazin, a very established man at Le Mans, coming back. He is probably the oldest in P1 category, a very strong man. Mike Conway – he is hungry, I tell you he is hungry! He and Kobayashi were driving extremely well and should have won in Spa.
The future of endurance racing
AS: What do you think about the resurgence of non-hybrid P1 projects like Ginetta or Perrinn for 2018?
TK: Normally, it looks good. Le Mans is open for everything, but you have already seen the first part of it, you have seen Daytona and such a competitive field in LMP2. The future will always be bright. It’s good to take these precautions if Peugeot, Mazda or another manufacturer is not coming in the hybrid category.
AS: Since you mentioned Daytona, do you think the manufacturer-styled P2s that we have in IMSA this year would be an option one day in Europe also?
TK: They are in dialogue. Manufacturers tend to go that way in America, sort of a collaboration in running the team. For the US, it’s absolutely filling the bill 100% and it makes for great racing too. In Europe, we have the car manufacturers more involved with their ultimate project. Le Mans is considered that ultimate project, so it has to go more hand-in-hand with the car manufacturers. But, as I say, it’s great to have the private category of LMP2 cars already running with such a huge line-up going into the race next month.
Out of the Le Mans universe
AS: Talking about other famous 24h races, in 2012 you gave it a shot at Spa and came in 6th (with Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer). Next weekend we have the Nordschleife 24h. Have you ever considered racing there?
TK: I was supposed to have done it in an Audi DTM car, I did many laps there – it’s a great, challenging circuit for GT cars in particular. But I drove for Bentley back then, it was too close to Le Mans and a test came up.
AS: In the DTM you always went well when the series came to Le Mans (third in ’06, pole in ’08). Was there a special vibe whenever you came there after all those 24-h wins?
TK: I felt really welcome and it was nice to do well, even though it was the Bugatti Circuit. Going onto the start/finish straight, in and out of the Dunlop chicane and then making sure I remember to turn into La Chapelle, that long right hander. That was a special feeling, absolutely.
AS: This weekend we are racing at Oulton Park, in the BTCC. You dominated the race there, back in 2000, in a JAS Honda Accord. What are your memories from that day?
TK: Jesus! 2000, so many years ago. I remember that I had an oil leak. In the last laps, the oil alarm came on, saw the smoke and I was afraid that I wouldn’t finish the race. But winning that in front of Jason Plato, I was extremely happy. I knew if he would have caught me, we would have had a contact, as we usually had! It was a great race and the track is fantastic for touring cars. Also good for GT cars, but perfect for touring cars and Formula 3.
After the race, I was so happy that, coming out of the car, I was smacking the roof with my fist. A bit too hard – there was a big dent in the roof. I decided to repair that immediately: I put my leg into the car and smacked the roof back up. I’m sure it was on TV, Eurosport caught it live!